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When L.A. County Was Covered In Wetlands

Roads, parking lots, asphalt — L.A. is filled with surfaces that can’t absorb our stormwater. We’ve built a region of twelve-lane freeways and sprawling suburbs, one that wastes over 100 billion gallons of rain and other water every year.

Sure, we have the L.A. River, which efficiently shuttles heavy rains from our cities to the ocean (along with trash and toxins), but what we don’t have are ample green spaces to absorb, clean and store this water for our own use.

With climate change bringing more intense flooding around the world, the need for more of these permeable spaces is immense. China, for one, has embarked on an ambitious project to build “sponge cities” that could absorb stormwater.

Building new infrastructure, including green space, not only keeps rainwater in L.A. County, it also allows new ecosystems to thrive. In the case of L.A., our region once played host to a diverse range of migratory and resident birds, not to mention exotic wetland flora like ice plant, oxalis, and ryegrass.   

L.A. County’s historically verdant landscape may come as a surprise to those who think of our region as an arid desert, incapable of supporting its own water supply. In fact, the opposite is true: Looking back on the ecology of L.A. County is to marvel at the ways the region supported its own, natural stormwater system.

In the 1850’s, a broad, 14,000 acre swath of West L.A. — including much of Beverly Hills, Inglewood, South L.A. and Baldwin Hills — was filled with its own patchwork of wetlands and rolling wet meadows, coastal sage and chaparral, grassy prairies and dense willow thickets. (The Spanish name for the streams and meadows in one neighborhood — Rodeo de las Aguas, or Round-up of the Waters — now lives on in the name of Rodeo Drive.)   

Historical accounts, maps and photographs attest to the region’s lush history. Wetlands, creeks, and lagoons were abundant in early literature. According to a 2012 study by the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, prairie-like lowlands often flooded from seasonal rainfall, supporting a “dynamic and diverse watershed.”  

But, as Southern California developed into a world-class metropolis, much of this landscape was lost. Starting in the early 1900s, marshes and bogs were sucked dry for development. Then, after World War II, the population boomed and much of the farmland in the county was paved over to build suburbs, stores, and schools for returning GIs and their families.

And now, when it rains, the vast concrete jungle that’s been built here keeps the water from soaking into the ground; instead, it simply flows downhill to the ocean, along with nasty chemicals it picks up on the way. Like a giant concrete funnel, L.A. shunts massive amounts of water into the ocean, even on dry days.   

Investing in stormwater capture would help turn this tide. L.A. County should continue transforming derelict landfills into lush wetland parks and creating natural spaces that filter toxic runoff, not only to secure local water for L.A. County residents, but also to help return the region to its ecological roots.